When is a Person a Person?

Kodos (as Bob Dole): “Abortions for all!”

Crowd: “BOOO!!! BOOO!!”

Dole: “Very well, no abortions for anyone!”

Crowd: “BOOO!!! BOO!!!!”

Dole:” Hmmmmmm….. abortions for some…. miniature American flags for others!”

Crowd: YEAY!!!!

–The Simpsons

The Right would have us believe that abortion is wrong. The Left would have use believe that abortion is, well, right. It’s infinitely tricky to come at this issue from a non political, non religious perspective but I have to say that in trying to grapple with it honestly, I have hit philosophical bedrock.

For as long as I have had an opinion on this issue it has been one hunkered unapologetically on the Left. I have always thought that it is a woman’s right to choose what she wants to do with her own body, and it is not for me to say otherwise.

Over the past year, however, I have had my mind blown by whole host of profound thinkers. Politically, I would now classify myself as a centrist or even a classic libertarian. And far from being a ‘fence sitter’ or agnostic on this issue I am, rather, burdened by my own inability to fully see how people can be so staunch about it at either end of the political spectrum, and fail to take the scientific nuances into account.

Let me tell you where the trouble starts for me. It is with a question. When can we honestly say that a potential human being becomes an actual human being? Is it the point of conception, when the sperm fertilises the ovum? That seems to be, biologically-speaking, a viable starting point. And quite a number of people on the Right, especially religious folks, would say it is now a human. Biologically, this single cell certainly has the potential to be a human being. But, for me, calling this single cell a human being and giving it the rights over the thoughtful, sentient mother just seems ludicrous.

On the other end of a spectrum, the case for the foetus being abortable just before birth is also profoundly ludicrous. I don’t think any thinking person would say that the vaginal birth canal somehow magically bestows humanity onto the foetus once it is delivered. Anyone that does think this is surely out of their minds. How would a person such as this contend with caesareans or the whole litany of issues that might arise and require a foetus to be birthed prematurely? At so many points prior to a natural, successful, traditional birth there is so much room to call this entity a human being.

So where does that leave us? As with most cases the sweet spot lies somewhere in-between. Permit me to use the case of human evolution as seen in Futurama as my example.

So just as Professor Farnsworth is listing all the missing links for each of the different species of extinct “filthy monkey men” he comes to a point where there is no other missing link between apes and the Darwinius Masillae. But the thing is, there are an infinite series of links between us and our ancestors. To put it another way, there are as infinitely more missing links in between those known links as there are individual generations of “filthy monkey men”.

For example, if you had, say,  a tremendously long line of photos, stacked up front to back, starting with you, and going back with your father and your grandfather and your great grandfather, all the way back to when we looked something like gelatinous sea blobs, every image would look virtually identical to the last, but very different if you pulled out pictures at random, which were further apart. Categories, then, are just a way for us to classify these differences, even though they fail to take smaller degrees of change into account. Or as Robert Sapolsky put it, “when you think categorically, you have trouble seeing how similar or different two things are. If you pay lots of attention to where boundaries are, you pay less attention to complete pictures.”


The same logic can be used with the transition of a zygote to a new born baby. At what point does this collection of cells become a human being? Looking at progress, day-by-day, from one cell to two trillion, where along that spectrum can we definitively call this collection of cells a person? It simply cannot be from day one. That, for me at least, flies in the face of logic, and is a religiously-rooted perspective that simply doesn’t hold under investigation. If this one cell has the potential to be a human being and that is sacred, then shouldn’t every person out there try their best to have as many children as possible, all of the time? And with the advent of stem cell research, aren’t the cells on my nose millions of potential human beings? Am I not committing daily genocide by picking it?

Same with a newborn baby. That little bundle is, of course, a human being. It was a human being a day before birth, and a month before birth too. If it has a nervous system, and is therefore sentient, then it is a human being. But here too, I do not know where to draw the line. Can a being have a nervous system one day but not the day before. What is the transition period? Is half a nervous system still a nervous system? In this respect, regardless of feelings or the situation one finds themselves in, I feel like I have to conclude that aborting a sentient foetus is morally akin to murder.  I hear the tragic example that, what if the woman is raped and wants to have an abortion? Well, to this I say, are we now moving the goal posts on what a human being is? Can we let this person now decide what constitutes a person on the basis of her feelings towards it? Why not allow a mother to abort her three-year-old child if that’s how she feels? Either it is a human or it is not. It is murder or it is not. Where is the line?

I realise that this kind of candour will incite some resistance, but all I am trying to do is understand when a person is a person (for myself at least), and when do we give it the rights and protection that we experience as fully fledged humans? And when can we take away those rights? On the basis of environment factors, tragic events or (god forbid) feelings?

For a change of pace, walk with me down the road of a hypothetical example. Imagine, if you will, a small jump into the future, where a technology exists that can enable a pregnant woman to transfer her foetus (at whichever stage) to another hopeful mother that really wants the child. If that were possible, you would agree that the life of this child would be so much more valuable than it currently is, and the thought of terminating it would, in fact be, a human rights violation. This then leads to another issue; is human morality free flowing or  permanent? What would this mean for the way we carry ourselves or the way we think about each other? Are there “inalienable truths” that define us and our experience of reality or do these “truths” change on the basis of the technology de jour?

Ultimately, I have still not decided on when a collection of inanimate cells becomes animate. There are so many infinitely small degrees of change in the process of pregnancy that is actually too difficult for me to say. I think that the mouth pieces on both sides of the political spectrum are wrong as they are coming from a place of either divine inspiration or human rights (both manmade inventions), and the problem is infinitely more nuanced than they would have you believe. Maybe someday soon our technology will catch up to this idea and present us with a more humane option (as hypothesised above) so that we no longer have to grapple with this all too painful reality.


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